by CHRIS ROGERS
Last Wednesday, 81 musicians made Winona history. Some of them were high school students; some of them were senior citizens. Ten of them were performing in Lake Park for the first time; some have played there for decades. All of them share a love of music.
Convertibles with the tops down lined the front row of parking spaces at the bandshell for the first performance of the Winona Municipal Band's centennial year. A grey-haired man slouched in the passenger seat of one well-waxed roadster, with his socked feet kicked up on the half-open door. Winonans packed the bench seats in front of the bandshell and more set up folding chairs in the aisles. In the soft grass in front of the band, a little girl and her brother danced to a Souza march, falling down often.
Trombonist Tom Nalli joined the Winona Municipal Band three years ago after moving to Winona from La Crosse, where he had played in La Crosse's municipal band. "I grew up with it," Nalli said of municipal band concerts. As a grade school kid in his hometown in New York, Nalli would walk down to the park in the summertime and watch the municipal band play. "I love it. I love to play 'Stars and Stripes Forever.' That's what you're supposed to do in the summer," Nalli said. As a band member, there is nothing more gratifying for Nalli than hearing a parking lot full of car horns honking to applaud a great song. These days, many of the towns near Nalli's childhood home no longer have municipal bands. "It's great that the tradition is still alive here," he added.
Flutist Joyce Gulbrandsen has played in the Winona Municipal Band for 48 years. "I was two when I joined," she joked. She was in school when she joined, and in the years since then she marched in Steamboat Days parades in stuffy brown uniforms; played at Winona County fairs, surrounded by revving tractors; and performed countless songs at Lake Park. Winona has one of the oldest municipal bands west of the Mississippi River. "I'm a native Winonan and it's kind of a matter of pride," Gulbrandsen said. "It's part of history here."
Gulbrandsen shared a few details of what it is like to be inside the big bandshell. There is a family of birds that roosts in the ceiling and sometimes sings when the band plays. "They just try to blend in with us, I guess. I don't know what they're thinking," she said. Playing is very enjoyable, but it is not always perfectly comfortable, she continued. During 6 p.m. rehearsals in the peak of the summer, the sun beats down at just the right angle to superheat the bandshell. In addition to being perfectly shaped to project the band's sound, it turns out that the big concrete shell is rather oven-like. So some days the band has to practice in a nearby school. By concert time, the sun shifts and the bandshell cools down. The city does a good job of controlling mosquitoes, "but sometimes you'll be playing along and take a breath and you'll suck in a bug or two," Gulbrandsen added.
Like Gulbrandsen, young Lexi Loesel started playing in the municipal band while she was in high school. Lexi joined her mother, Judy Loesel, in the trumpet section five years ago so she could keep playing over the summer. "I just wanted a band to play in after school ended, " Lexi said.
Many high school students and recent graduates join the band, and Gulbrandsen said the mix of older members and younger members is good for both. "We both learn from each other. Some of those kids are just phenomenal players because they're just so in it, and it if you haven't played for a while maybe you get a little rusty." She added, "Once you're out of school, if you're not involved in music for some reason, there aren't all that many opportunities to play. Being in the city band has given me a chance to play and I've enjoyed it very, very much."
Band member Jen Welch now plays bassoon beside her former music teacher, Earl Heartt. Welch had just graduated high school when she joined the Winona Municipal Band 20 years ago. Like many of the band members, band music has been a huge part of her life. She taught elementary music for years and currently gives lessons.
Heartt spent his career teaching music at La Crosse public schools and at Saint Mary's University. "Now, I'm doing what I love: performing," he said. Heartt loves the art of performing music, the challenge, and the opportunity to work with a variety of directors, each with their own personality. "We've played this song under, one, two, three different directors," he said pointing to a piece of sheet music. "They all had a different take on the same piece of music."
When asked what it feels like to play one her favorite pieces, Welch said, "When you have a piece that you love, that's technically difficult, there's a rush when it all comes together." Playing in the Winona Municipal Band has been particularly enjoyable, she continued. "Everyone here is on the same page. Everyone is here to make great music. Everyone is a high caliber performer, and it's fun to play with people who all have that same desire," she explained.
The Winona Municipal Band will play at the bandshell at 8 p.m. every Wednesday through August 12. Each week there are special events and giveaways to commemorate the band's centennial year, including fireworks following the August 5 performance. For a full concert schedule, see page 8aa.